L.A. Indie Bookstores Persist During Pandemic-Hit Holiday Season

The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles, California
Lex Voight

The Last Bookstore in DTLA

From drowning in debt to lines out the door, local outlets have readjusted the way they do business nine months after the COVID-19 outbreak hit the U.S.

With COVID-19 cases rising and a new stay-at-home order in effect, indie bookstores in Los Angeles continue to tread water amid an overwhelming storm. Throw in the first holiday season of the pandemic era and bookstores are enduring even more challenges in what would usually be the most lucrative time of the year. 

When The Hollywood Reporter last spoke to several bookstores in March — at the start of the pandemic — store owners were forced to cut staff, focus on online sales and ponder the idea of opening their doors again. Now nine months later and in the midst of the holiday season, local bookstores are open at 20 percent capacity and have found salvation by reinventing themselves and creating safe and enjoyable ways to remain connected to their communities.  

On each of the stores' websites, new safety protocols are detailed informing customers of what can and cannot be done while indoors and safer ways to shop such as wearing masks, adhering to social distancing guidelines, applying hand sanitizer upon entering and taking advantage of curbside pickup. Even with a grasp of how to operate under new circumstances with smaller staffs, stores have been surviving — but things haven't necessarily been easier. 

"Everything about working during the pandemic has been a challenge," Skylight Books manager Steven Salardino tells THR of running the Vermont Avenue bookstore amid rising COVID-19 cases and ongoing shutdowns.

"It is challenging to not get too depressed and to create a space where employees and customers can feel safe," he says. "Doing business the way we have to do it now — online, ship-outs, pick-ups, limited browsing time and capacity — takes so much more time and energy than the old way of handing someone a book and swiping a credit card." 

Meanwhile, the store owner of Downtown L.A.'s The Last Bookstore, Josh Spencer, tells THR, "We were struggling before the pandemic and had just taken out several large loans before it forced us to close." Now being "close to a million dollars in debt," Spencer says they currently have "quite a hole to dig out of." Yet, he's "confident we have enough great inventory to motivate our customers to help us with that."

For other stores such as L.A.'s oldest independent bookstore Chevalier's in Hancock Park, dark times have surprisingly sparked a light of hope. Store manager Theresa Le Phung tells THR that while sales dropped by more than 50 percent during the early days of the shutdown ("It simply wasn’t manageable to run a store at that level"), having a 20 percent capacity has helped the store find relief. 

"Sometimes we have a line outside the door of people waiting to come in," she says, adding that staff members even have to "play bouncer" to handle crowd control. With the store attracting large crowds, the monthly sales since October "has been double our usual sales of a regular year without COVID," Le Phung says, with 60 percent of sales being from in-store and the other 40 percent from email and phone orders. 

In a pre-pandemic world, many owners are in agreement that holiday shopping would account for a chunk of their yearly profits, but expectations are now lower due to less foot traffic and the inability to host holiday events to gather locals. 

For the holidays, Salardino says Skylight Books' business strategy would normally be to "have as many booksellers as possible be available in the bookstore to help customers find books and to suggest titles." But this year, the focus is on speed and "just trying to get customers the books they desire in a quick and safe way."

CEO of West Hollywood’s Book Soup and Pasadena's Vroman's Julia Cowlishaw tells THR that she and her team created their annual holiday catalogs for each store and moved the events to online. Spencer explains that less foot traffic means less time spent on inventory. "It’s a simple matter of lowering our budget but making sure we are still fully stocked with good books and records for gifts," he says.

"People are pretty much in and out these days. But sales are strong, which is the most important thing for our future," says Leah Koch of Culver City’s The Ripped Bodice, L.A.'s romance-only bookstore. 

As hardships continue and customers are still wary of visiting stores, there have been silver linings amid the trying time. With more customers at home, retailers have welcomed a surge in online sales.

Cowlishaw tells THR that prior to the pandemic, online purchases were one to two percent of sales and now months into the pandemic, online sales for Vroman's and Book Soup are close to 30 percent. Because of that, she explains, "We’ve added shipping stations, moved employees to another building to create space for order processing and reconfigured our event space to hold curbside orders. It isn’t enough but it is what we can accomplish at this time." 

Meanwhile, Koch says sales are 95 percent online and the store is financially strong as business has been steady through the summer. "We're shipping way more in L.A. than we would have before because those people would have just come in, which tells me that those people still want to support us and that's fantastic," Koch says of the increasing online orders. 

Over at Skylight Books, Salardino says the store is currently "averaging 3-5 times the amount of daily online orders, on some days even 20 times more" than expected. "In a normal year, we could expect some really big numbers during the weekends in December and the week leading up to Christmas Day. Sales started to increase Dec. 1, which is heartening and we are grateful, but it will be nowhere near a normal December," he adds. 

James Fugate, co-owner of Eso Won Books, one of the few Black-owned bookstores in L.A., says though they may not be getting "thousands of orders" each day, they have been managing with roughly "60-70 online orders a day" with visits from customers.

With businesses left to operate amid ongoing shutdowns and virus spikes, the government has offered some aid via the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL), both created to provide economic relief for businesses losing revenue and needing help to keep their workforces employed during the pandemic. Stores say aid was used to pay for rent and employee pay but it quickly ran out.

At the start of the pandemic, charitable efforts such as The Book Industry Charitable Foundation, American Booksellers Association and even author James Patterson also offered aid for indie bookstores in need. Patterson personally raised $500,000 for stores in April. Public calls to support independent bookstores have also remained consistent. 

Tough times call for desperate measures, but Le Phung asserts that small businesses have learned to survive their own way: "We are going to do what we need to do to stay in business."

Online sales may be up but several stores admit the grass isn’t always greener on the digital front and online retail has had its rewards and repercussions. 

"We pretty much pack and ship eight to 10 hours, seven days a week," says Koch. "It was not exactly my dream to be running an online fulfillment center. You have to just recognize how lucky you are and you know what it's going to take to keep going."

Le Phung says Chevalier's used to run "the old fashioned way," without an "online retail arm," and has now been forced to transition into more updated retail operations, which has proven to be challenging. "In the last eight, nine months it’s been a matter of catching up on all those other ways to sell books that isn't just in the store. So I definitely think that’s going to just be an ingrained part of our business moving forward, even after the pandemic."

Bookstores have also had to face the reign of Amazon as the pandemic has worsened the state of a myriad of small businesses. According to the American Booksellers Association, over 20 percent of independent bookstores are in danger of closing. To highlight that struggle, the ABA launched a "Boxed Out" Campaign in October on Amazon's Prime Day to demonstrate how bookstores and small businesses have been overtaken by cardboard Amazon boxes. Bookstores in Washington D.C., New York and Los Angeles, including Skylight Books, participated in the campaign. 

"We feel that the culture and community that springs up around books and bookstores and other local businesses is incredibly important. Skylight Books is part of a neighborhood and an artistic community and we like having that responsibility," says Salardino. "We like our taxes going to our local schools and street improvements and fire department. Hopefully, the Boxed Out campaign was a good reminder to help support us so we can continue to be around to support our communities."

"People may not realize the cost and consequences of 'convenience' shopping until it's too late. More than one indie bookstore a week has closed since the COVID-19 crisis began," ABA CEO Allison K. Hill said in the campaign announcement. "Closed indie bookstores represent the loss of local jobs and local tax dollars; the loss of community centers; and the loss of opportunities for readers to discover books and connect with other readers in a meaningful face-to-face way."

Despite adapting to new business strategies, online events have helped stores maintain a sense of community. Cowlishaw cites "successful pre-order and signed book campaigns" for gaining new international customers, whereas Skylight Books has virtually hosted book clubs and author events. "Nothing replaces 'live and in-person' but we’ve had fun exploring video events and audio podcasts," Salardino says. 

In addition to virtual events, new offerings in-store and online have proven successful. After launching successful "care packages" of romance titles this year, The Ripped Bodice launched a subscription box cheekily called, "Read, Romance, Repeat." The store has also hosted virtual author events so "readers and customers from all over the world" are able to join. Meanwhile, The Last Bookstore has expanded to selling collectibles on a new Instagram channel and hosted virtual book clubs, which, Spencer says, "have been more popular than in-person clubs were."

"We’ve also shared virtual events with two different bands, Tenacious D and Lucius, that were successful, but we haven’t been able to afford dedicated staff for any other virtual events," Spencer adds. 

As 2020 has delivered more than its fair share of challenging times for stores, the overall market for books has remained strong. 

According to NPD Bookscan Data, 2020 reflects one of the highest volume years for U.S. trade book sales. Sales volume rose 17 million units for the week ending Nov. 28 and the preceding week. Sales have grown 7.7 percent year to date on a unit basis at the end of November, with credit attributed to holiday shopping and rising hardcover sales including of Barack Obama’s memoir, A Promised Land, which had the highest first-week sales of any adult non-fiction print book thus far. 

The Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd prompted a #BlackoutBestsellersList campaign and high demand from readers hoping to purchase books about race and racism. "It was encouraging to see the increased demand for books dealing with race and justice issues surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement and protests," Salardino says.

Fugate says previously published books like How To Be An Anti-Racist by Ibram Kendi, So You Wanna Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo and Robin DiAngelo's White Fragility, just "exploded" in sales as a result. "We probably sold over 1,000 copies of that book since June. I mean it’s just been incredible," he says of Kendi's bestseller.

As Ernest Hemingway once said, "There is no friend as loyal as a book." His words of wisdom have proven to be true as stores say the thread that connects all of them is the sweeping support from customers.

In early October, Chevalier's posted a letter to the community on its website explaining that the store needed support given it would be moving into a new leasing space that's more than double the cost of its current space. The response, Le Phung recalls, was overwhelming. "We had someone buy $10,000 worth of gift cards. We have a yearly membership for customers [and] someone bought 40 of them as a show of, 'I'm going to invest in the future of Chevalier’s Books for 40 more years,'" Le Phung says. "I joke about this all the time but really it’s almost like we had Christmas in October, we had Christmas in November and now we are having real Christmas."

Hollywood Boulevard's Larry Edmunds Bookshop launched a GoFundMe to ask for donations that could help keep the store afloat. As of Dec. 15, over $47,758 has been raised of its $100,000 goal. Echo Park's Stories Books & Cafe also launched a GoFundMe for donations to help the staff and store: "The donations here will be going to the staff and to the store. They will ensure our collective survival and guarantee Stories will be here for as long as you'll have us." Over $43,619 has been raised thus far with a $150,000 goal.

A longtime employee of North Hollywood's Iliad Bookstore, Lisa Morton, says it's now common to see regular customers grow emotional after walking into the store. "We know by sight the first name of probably 80 percent of our clientele. It has been so nice to have so many of them coming in. Some of them are on the verge of weeping and they come in and they’re saying, 'Oh thank God, a place is open. You guys are open. We’re so glad you’re still here.' That part of it has been really, really great." 

As the year has proven to be quite the journey, stores remain hopeful for the future even if that means things change day-by-day. 

"The pandemic and these recent times have taught us a lot about the importance of patience, science, justice, fairness, community and connection, among other things. The holiday season can be hard (even in normal times) as well as joyous and I would hope for everyone to work together with empathy and understanding and to keep supporting each other and their communities," says Salardino. 

"Our goals are pretty basic: Stay in business and make customers as happy as possible," says Cowlishaw. "We'll be ready to take our masks off and offer great big smiles when the pandemic is over."